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Fast.Co Design recently posted a rare interview with Massimo Vignelli by Gary Hustwit from 2006. Hustwit Conducted a staggering number of interviews with designers during the making of his Design Trilogy of films (Helvetica, Objectified, and Urbanized) and the complete interview transcripts from all three films is now available in one handy-dandy volume (y’know, if you’re looking for a convenient gift for the favourite designer-type-person in your life).

Vignelli-designed New York subway system map

Vignelli-designed New York subway system map

The interview posted at Fast.Co focuses a lot on the landmark work Vignelli did with New York subway system in the ’70s as well as his opinions about the role of design in the public’s mind and the direction of the future of typography and graphic design. It’s a good look into a designer that had such a prolific and varied career, and was also a little refreshing to see Vignelli gripe so humanly about the changes in his designs over the years.

I first came across the work of Massimo Vignelli when I was still in Design School and was assigned a research project on him. The breadth and depth of his career as a designer continues to be a source of great inspiration to me, and I take a lot of his aesthetic and opinions on design to heart. An ardent design generalist, Vignelli did not necessarily recognize the distinctions between design disciplines so often perceived by North American designers. His ethos of “If you can design one thing, you can design everything” is reflected in the broad range of his work. The multidisciplinary list of designs credited to Massimo Vignelli is huge and varied — books, magazines, calendars, packaging, furniture, glassware, carpeting, lamps, silverware, jewelry, architectural signage, corporate identity programs, transportation graphics, showrooms, interiors, and exhibitions — awe-inspiring, to say the least. 

Vignelli-designed glassware

Vignelli-designed glassware

While I don’t take the same point of view that he spoke of in the Hustwit interview: “I don’t think type should be expressive at all” — I can’t deny that the elegance he described in his approach is evident, and his views of a designer as generalist is something that I’ve made something of a touchstone in my career.

Massimo Vignelli was born in Milan in 1931 and studied at the Brera Academy of Art in Milan as well as at the Univeristy of Venice’s School of Architecture. In 1960, with his wife Lella, he established the Vignelli Office of Design and Architecture in Milan, working in graphics, products, furniture and interiors for European companies and institutions. Later, he co-founded Unimark Design in 1965. After working in New York, Massimo and Lella established Vignelli Associates in 1971. 

A "Knoll Tabloid" on swatches

A “Knoll Tabloid” on swatches

Of particular note in Massimo Vignelli’s career is the graphic program developed for Knoll furniture in 1967. Vignelli himself described this as “the most exciting, rewarding” project he’s developed. It was so effective that by 1976, a revamp was necessary because Knoll’s brochures and catalogues had been copied by so many companies, they had completely lost their distinctiveness. As a solution, Massimo proposed what were eventually known as the Knoll Tabloids. Seven tabloids were produced (devoted to a specific subject — seating, textiles, etc.) on rough-textured, low-cost newsprint. Although Knoll initially resisted, this no-nonsense approach was a refreshing and totally unexpected change of pace for the times.

Knoll Poster

Knoll Poster

Vignelli brought to his designs a deep respect and passion for the history of design as well as a vast knowledge of classical design forms and motifs. The clean and simple lines, clear bright colours and sense of vitality that permeate the Vignelli portfolio are not uncommon in a lot of modern design, but the Vignelli name brought with it a certain undefinable “Italianness,” or sense of operatic drama. All of the work of Massimo as well as Vignelli Assoicates can be described as clean and spare, but without being austere. The best Vignelli designs melded visual pleasure and ease of use.

Mr. Vignelli received numerous award for his work, including the first Presidential Award for Design, awarded personally by Ronald Reagan in 1985, the National Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Museum of Design at Cooper-Hewitt in New York in 2003 and the Visionary Award from the Museum of Art and Design in New York in 2004.

Massimo Vignelli passed away in 2014. In his last days, Designers from all over the world sent notes of appreciation, thanks, and awe to the family of the man who was the “grandfather of graphic design,” and many posted those letters online as well, with the hashtag #dearmassimo.

Vignelli Designed Logos

Vignelli Designed Logos

One would be hard pressed to name a field of design Massimo Vignelli has not touched. Today, customers coming out of Bloomingdales or Saks Fifth Avenue carry Vignelli-designed shopping bags; they walk out the door under Vignelli-designed logos, carry Vignelli-designed products in their bags, and travel home using Vignelli-designed subway maps and signs as a guide. The indelible impression of Massimo Vignelli’s designs are classic, ubiquitous and have undeniably helped shape the world around us.